It was born from a foreclosed company, and in the end had so little value as a railroad that it was simply abandoned rather than sold. Georgia’s Tallulah Falls Railway owners had a grand plan to connect to various other southeastern lines, but that plan was never implemented, most likely because the mountainous terrain would have required many millions in construction costs. The TF’s nickname was the Rabun Gap Route, although is it any surprise that some local people jokingly called it the “Total Failure”?
The original line between Cornelia and Tallulah Falls was built by the Northeastern Railroad of Georgia, a railroad chartered in 1870 by a group of Athens businessmen to build a line between Athens and Clayton. It reached Tallulah Falls in 1882. As the northern terminus of the rail line for over twenty years, Tallulah Falls became a popular resort town. Trading opportunities also increased for this remote region and the depot served as a social center.
This line was purchased by the company that would soon become the Southern Railway, who were mostly interested in the southern end of the line as a way to tie Athens on to their Atlanta-to-East Coast mainline.
The Blue Ridge and Atlantic bought the northern end of this line from the pre-Southern Railway in 1887 as the first step in their effort to connect Savannah with Knoxville, which was supposed to use a new route to get from Tallulah Falls to Clayton, then use the route surveyed prior to the Civil War by the Blue Ridge Railroad to connect Clayton to Franklin, NC.
The Blue Ridge and Atlantic failed in 1897, and The Tallulah Falls Railway was organized the following year to take over the former’s foreclosed properties. With the financial backing of Southern Railway, the new owners extended the line to Clayton in 1904, to North Carolina in 1906, and to Franklin in 1907. The result was a 57-mile line from Cornelia to Franklin.
Perhaps the most distinguishing single characteristic of the Tallulah Falls Railroad was its fascinating variety of trademark trestles. Forty-two of these massive wooden wonders had to be negotiated along the scenic journey, each having to bear the full weight of a 140,000 lb. locomotive and its heavy load. It is these forty-two trestles which created much of the line’s personality, and more than any other single feature dramatically reflected the type of country that the TF served – rugged, wild and often dangerous.
The trestles of the Tallulah Falls Railroad were quite varied. The shortest of the trestles was approximately 25 feet in length, while the longest is generally considered to be the 940 feet long scenic wonder which skirted the rooftops over the town of Tallulah Falls. The only exception to the wooden trestles along the line was the massive 585 feet long steel and concrete bridge spanning Tallulah Lake.
Though numerous accidents and mishaps occurred along the many TF trestles, most were rather minor. The dangerous reputation these structures held came primarily from two collapses: in 1898 at Panther Creek and in 1927 at Hazel Creek. Both mishaps resulted in fatalities. The accident at Hazel Creek produced some of the railroad’s most memorable and dramatic photographs.
Around the time that the railroad was under construction between Clayton and Franklin, the Southern was considering a grander plan, one which would incorporate the TF and several other existing lines into a new route over the Appalachians to Knoxville, TN. If constructed, the railroad would have continued from Franklin down the Little Tennessee River valley to Southern’s Murphy Branch (Asheville-to-Murphy, NC) near Almond.
From there, trains could proceed a few miles to Bushnell where the Tennessee & Carolina Southern branched off and followed the river 14 miles to Fontana. From Fontana, new tracks would be built alongside the Little Tennessee to Calderwood, where they would join existing lines to Maryville and Knoxville. None of it ever came about.
Passenger service came to an end in 1946. Ongoing repair costs and mounting debt forced the railway to cease operations in 1961; the last freight train ran on March 25 that year. A short section from Cornelia to Demorest remained in operation for several years longer, but was abandoned sometime before 1985.
My thanks to Ed Kelly of Athens, GA for his help on the early history of the Blue Ridge and Atlantic